Relegation Saturday

Top of Coit TowerThe big games were scheduled for Sunday, in Liverpool – Chelsea and to a lesser extent Newcastle United – Arsenal, but Saturday featured key clashes that are already looking like relegation battles: West Ham United – West Bromwich United, Hull City – Fulham, and Cardiff City – Sunderland.  I plan to talk a bit more about Hull City in a longer piece and I’ll have a summary of analysis of the Liverpool – Chelsea game before the midweek fixtures.  Here I want to offer some reflections on the West Ham – West Brom tilt.

For a game between two teams in such poor form, Sam Allardyce and Keith Downing produced a fairly interesting tactical battle with six goals thrown in to boot, though in truth it was more exciting than impressive football, and it is easy to see why both sides are currently struggling.  Downing set his team out with three central defenders in a 5-3-2, presumably to help neutralize West Ham’s crossing.  If that was the purpose, it seemed to work.  For the opening 68′, during which West Brom featured a third center back, West Ham completed only 3 of 15 crosses.  After Uruguayan center back Diego Lugano was replaced by winger Morgan Amalfitano and West Brom shifted to four at the back, West Ham completed 4 of 8 crosses, a 30% improvement in completion rate and an 0.14 increase in the number of crosses per minute.

And while it’s hard to credit Downing’s second half substitutions with creating Saido Berahino’s goal of individual brilliance, he was much more active in reshaping the structure of his side.  With the introduction of Amalfitano for Lugano, Downing formalized Anelka’s role as a false nine in the first half, where he had often dropped into the midfield underneath Berahino, by shifting the side to a 4-2-3-1 with James Morrison dropping back alongside Yousouf Mulumbu.  At 78′, Claudio Yacob replaced Morrison, but this ostensibly defensive substitution gave West Brom’s midfield the solidity to move Anelka forward into a genuine 4-4-2 (a move not unlike Roberto Mancini’s defensive substitutions to free up Ya Ya Touré last season).  Anelka remained high on the pitch as the 85′ substitution of Stephane Sessegnon for Berahino created more of a 4-4-1-1.

Given the evidence of having gotten it right at the outset and of a progressive substitution strategy in the second, it’s easy to suggest that Downing won the tactical battle, as suggested in the solid tactical analysis of the game provided at Ballon d’Or.  Perhaps, but I think it’s worth noting the difficulties under which Allardyce was laboring.  Already playing with only one legitimate center back–and that a 3rd choice rather than one of his preferred starters–Allardyce was forced to replace James Tomkins at 10′, leaving him with a “center” pairing of George McCartney and Joey O’Brien.  O’Brien was at fault in both of Anelka’s goals, leaving it unclear how much blame can be plaid at the manager’s feet.

The lack of experience at the back is also important to remember when hearing claims that Allardyce should have adopted a more progressive attitude at home.  Given his team’s injury struggles at the back, it’s not at all clear adopting a more attacking role would have been wise.  Indeed, it was a shift in the latter part of the first half from West Ham’s typical 4-3-3 to something more like a 4-2-3-1, albeit with Nolan and Diamé taking turns joining Noble in a deeper role, that helped to stabilize their performance.

More important was the introduction of Modibo Maiga at the start of the second half.  Though he has looked better of late, Maiga still has much to prove.  Even so, his performance in this game was undoubtedly the difference for West Ham, scoring on the second of two nearly identical self-created chances from the right and then assisting Nolan on West Ham’s third goal.  If Maiga starts to come good in the second half of the season–and this remains a big “if”–Allardyce’s most questionable decision this season, his failure to find a legitimate back-up for Andy Carroll, may prove less outrageous than it currently appears.  Given the limitations under which he was working on Saturday, it’s difficult to know how much better Allardyce could have done.

That said, Big Sam is still left with a draw in a self-described “must win” game.  Gold and Sullivan have shown patience–wisely, in my view–but a win on New Year’s Day at woeful Fulham may well be a necessity for staying in the job.

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